Yarl's Wood: An object lesson in how evil happens

Bad people, bad management and institutional failure all contributed to what happened at the Yarl's Wood detention centre.

You hear a lot of things when you’re a journalist. And ninety-five per cent of the time, you know they’re not true, or wildly exaggerated. And every so often you think they might be true, but you don’t know how on earth you’re going to stand them up, and you also know that unless you’ve got a watertight case, you’re going to get your publication’s arse sued off.

That smoking gun: who knows when it’ll turn up? All you can do is keep making inquiries, bide your time, report on other things - and maybe your biggest fear is ending up like one of those old Fleet Street soaks on the documentaries about Jimmy Savile: “Sure, we all knew, but what could we do? We were just journalists.”

The public doesn’t have a lot of time for this sentiment. Maybe the public’s right. Dunno. Most hacks I know try their best. But then they’re also idiots, myself included. Dogs chasing cars, to quote a famous film villain. Or these days more likely to be sniffing each other’s arseholes on social media.

So: Yarl’s Wood. I’d heard plenty of murmurs from solicitors and campaigners before this weekend. But I hadn’t heard explicit details such as those laid out in the Observer’s front page story. To quote Nick Cohen’s accompanying comment piece:

According to Tanja's account, a male guard locks the door. He pulls out his earpiece, perhaps to make sure he is not disturbed, and after some initial touching, he pushes his penis in her face. He laughs when he ejaculates in her mouth – so confident is he that he can escape punishment.

I’d written about Yarl’s Wood many times before, but found it frustrating because I couldn’t really write about what I suspected to be a regular occurrence. I remember one former inmate talking to me on the phone from there last year: these words in her thick African accent - “They are BAD people. They are BAD people,” again and again. She’d come here from a war zone. What was going on? “I don’t like to say. They are BAD.”

Let’s quote Cohen again:

The corporate guards confine her and can punish her. One starts thrusting himself on her. What does she do? She could think that she has to go along with him or he'll put her on the next plane out. Or she could believe that if she does what she is told she will be in a relationship with an Englishman and that somehow this "affair" (if that is not too romantic a word) will allow her to stay in the country.

Bad people. But I couldn’t prove it, and there was plenty else to cover. I could have written a piece a week about the sort of people we send there. Only a couple of days ago I received an email about Evenia Mawongera, who has just been sent there pending deportation to Zimbabwe. She’s an outspoken critic of the Mugabe regime, and has been living in Leicester with her children and grandchildren for the past 10 years. 

On 22 August, she received a special commendation in the Good Neighbour Awards in recognition of her contribution to the community. She’s a member of the Zimbabwe Association Choir and is one of the people who performed for the Queen when she came to Leicester in June 2012 to mark the start of her Diamond Jubilee tour. She has no family in Zimbabwe. Her children and grandchildren, with whom she has been living for the past 10 years, are British citizens.

That’s the kind of person we keep sending to Yarl’s Wood.

And I know what Evenia faces. I’ve written about the history of the place. About a woman who was dragged out of her room naked in order to force her removal, and a resulting hunger strike among the detainees. About the woman suffering from kidney failure who was left sitting in her own piss in the van on the way to the centre. About the treatment of pregnant women in there. And so on.

So I’m glad the smoking gun eventually appeared - from a source, as Cohen points out, that very soon will cease to exist:

We would not have published a word about Yarl's Wood were it not for the heroic efforts of Harriet Wistrich, the best feminist lawyer I know. But she will not be able to carry on bringing cases like these to the public's attention for much longer.

The legal aid cuts are not directed against fat cat lawyers, who continue to make their fortunes in the City, but against solicitors such as her, who do well if they make £40,000 a year. More seriously, they are directed against their clients.

***

Some commenters on my previous pieces about Yarl’s Wood have complained about my apparent left wing bias. If only I took politics that seriously. I just tend to write about things that aren’t working. Like most writers who’ve spent enough time following our political elite, I believe that when you vote, you’re choosing between slightly different styles of management. And the most important distinction in the management isn’t between left or right - it’s between good and bad. And on many issues - perhaps most - you’ll get much the same kind of good and bad from all the parties.

Bad management doesn’t sound all that serious. But once the system malfunctions, the results can be despicable. Hillsborough, Mid Staffs, a vulnerable young woman in a detention centre giving blowjobs she doesn’t want to give. For evil to thrive, all that has to happen etc.

And we’ve dealt with immigration badly whoever’s in power. In part - and it’s the same story with crime - that’s because our lawmakers know that managing the public perception is far more important than whatever’s going on in reality.

We’re a funny lot when it comes to this issue. I guess as a nation we’re summed up by one encounter the TV chef Lorraine Pascale described on Twitter: “Landlord said to me all 'n words' should go home & were not welcome. He said I could stay though as his wife liked my cakes.”

As I once wrote here, in recent years the rate of immigration to Britain has increased – as has the rate of migration around the world. It’s hardly surprising this should spark concerns on a small island with a grandiose history, an uncertainty about its future standing in the world, and an obscenely subtle set of cultural nuances.

But then T S Eliot was right about humankind not being able to stand too much reality. Send those scrounging foreign bastards/job thieves (delete as applicable; or maybe keep both) home, except for that nice old Indian couple who live up the road and that Spanish bloke in our local footy team. Damn the EU opening the floodgates, right up until we retire to the Algarve.

We’re a nation of tedious hypocrites. And that means our politicians have felt they have to be seen to be doing the right thing, even if they’re not. That’s how you end up with the crass hilariousness of the “racist van” patrolling the streets while the Border Agency staggers from one crisis to another, ruining lives in the process, until the coalition finally put it out of its misery.

At the time Theresa May said it was “secretive and defensive”. It was, but it was also unsure of itself, and like many government entities, it felt the safest option was to give contracts to the giant corporations, put the dirty jobs at arm’s length - how bad could it be? They know what they’re doing, right? Institutional failure. It’s an object lesson in how evil happens.

Sorry for the indulgent trip down commentary lane: back to chasing cars now. If the weekend’s taught me anything, it’s that it’s the right thing to do.

Police outside Yarl's Wood after a fire there in 2003. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.